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Feel Art Again: "Judith Beheading Holofernes"

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In response to my recent plea for pre-1900 female artists (at the bottom of the post on Lady Laura Alma-Tadema), reader Megan suggested Artemisia Gentileschi's "Judith Beheading Holofernes." Gentileschi's life and artwork are fascinating, and she is definitely a departure from the male artists we usually discuss in "Feel Art Again." So, without further ado, I present Artemisia Gentileschi and "Judith Beheading Holofernes."

1. Many of Artemisia Gentileschi's paintings are retellings of biblical stories from the women's perspectives. "Judith Beheading Holofernes," of which she painted two versions, is one such example. The first version, completed by 1612 (and shown on the left), is considered to be inspired by Caravaggio's 1598 painting of the same subject and title. The second version (shown on the right) was completed sometime between 1612 and 1622.

2. In the 17th century, although women of nobility and daughters of artists were often trained in artistic endeavors, they were not admitted to art academies and usually did not make their livings through painting. Artemisia Gentileschi was an exception, partly because her father, Orazio Gentileschi, was a well-known and well-regarded artist. He and his colleagues trained Artemisia, and he promoted his daughter's talent to royalty, including the grand duchess of Tuscany, to whom he wrote:

"...she has become so skilled that I can venture to say that she has no peer; indeed, she has produced works which demonstrate a level of understanding that perhaps even the principal masters of the profession have not attained..."

3. Artemisia Gentileschi became a well-connected and well-respected artist, to the extent that several sources note that she "was reckoned not inferior to her father in history, and excelled him in portraits." In 1616, she joined the Florentine Academia del Disegno as its very first female member. She surely met Caravaggio, of whom her father was a follower, and knew Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger, nephew of the great Michelangelo, who held her in high esteem and included her likeness in one of his paintings. She also maintained a long friendship with Galileo Galielei.

4. While she was a teen, Artemisia's father hired Agostino Tassi, a landscape and seascape artist, to teach her perspective. In early 1612, the Gentileschis accused Tassi of raping Artemisia, which sparked a seven month, scandalous and much publicized trial. Although Tassi was imprisoned, the trial was quite a burden for Artemisia and sullied her family's name. Tassi accused Artemisia (plus her mother and sisters) of being a whore and living in a bordello. The trial included physical torture of Artemisia, specifically of her hands, to prove her truthfulness, as well as a vaginal exam to prove her virginity prior to the rape. (Find out more about the trial, including witnesses and statements, here.)

5. After the Tassi trial, Artemisia was married off to a fellow painter, Pietro Antonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi, who had testified on her behalf. The marriage produced four children (only one of whom lived to adulthood), but only lasted 10 years. When the marriage fell apart, Artemisia became the head of her own household and raised her daughter, Prudenza (who also painted), by herself, which was possible since Artemisia was the first woman who managed to live exclusively by her brush. She evidently made "a splendid income," with patronage from the Medici family and King Charles I.

6. For two or three years, Artemisia resided at the court of King Charles I in England. While there, she collaborated with her father on a large commission, the ceiling of the Queen's House at Greenwich.

7. Artemisia Gentileschi's tabloid-worthy life has been the subject of several biographical novels, several stage plays by Sally Clark, and a loosely-based 1997 Golden Globe-nominated film.

A larger version of Gentileschi's first "Judith Beheading Holofernes" is available here, while the second version can be seen larger here.

'Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday and Thursday.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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